Women belong to water; men, to land. The differences are mostly in our psychological, literary, folkloric traditions. Yes, dicks are hard, or so one hopes. Pussies are deep, wet, penetrable. But the earth-sea binary is mainly a matter of fixed versus fluid identity, of norms versus the unknown. Freud was wrongest of all to call female sexuality “the dark continent.” Rather, I think anything uncharted is more like the ocean: Both not-land and no man’s land.
Ophelia sank. The Lady of Shallott floated. Edna, in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, swam “far out, where no woman had swum before.” Eudora Welty wrote two drownings, one near and one faked, in “Moon Lake” and “The Wide Net.”
And they drowned witches, didn’t they?
Water got its own, though, when sailors met sirens. Fatally attractive, these babes loved only their sisters, put men in pelagic graves, and were entirely made up; in other words, original misandrists.
“I must be a mermaid,” wrote Anais Nin, last century’s high priestess of cliterature. “I have no fear of depths, but a great fear of shallow living.” Nin swims in a long tradition of women who’d rather be fish: “Diving Into the Wreck,” the early ’70s Adrienne Rich poem, casts narrator as mermaid, then merman. Aimee Bender’s 1998 short story, “Drunken Mimi,” stars a high school mermaid in disguise, her hair alive and orgasmic to the touch. Scientist and writer Elaine Morgan is the greatest living proponent of the “aquatic ape thesis,” positing that homo sapiens emerged from the sea, not the savannah (she finds the regular old ape thesis too male, too hunter-centric). Matthea Harvey lyricizes landlocked sirens, Carolyn Turgeon blogs them, Azealia Banks is a black Ariel on Fantasea, and even Queen B., in the documentary Bey, tells us she “was a mermaid” in her other life.
Finally, the first words of Leanne Shapton’s exquisite Swimming Studies are also the last on the subject: “Water is elemental, it’s what we’re made of, what we can’t live within or without.”
So when the 20-minute pornographic film Magical Mermaids (year, director unknown) opens in medias aqua, we scarcely feel the lack of exposition. Legends dating to 1000 B.C. will suffice. When we see two leggy babes—one white, one likely Southeast Asian—circling each other at the bottom of a pale blue pool, we know something sapphic and impossible will happen.
Would our belief float more easily if the women wore fishtails, like Daryl Hannah in Splash? Would we rather be watching Daryl Hannah in Splash? No, and yes. We would always rather be watching Daryl Hannah in Splash. But while Hans Christian Anderson-era mermaids were drawn with human parts from the hips up (see: works by Edmund Gulac, Charles Santore, and Edward Burnes-Jones), we now live in a Walt Disney world. The PG-13, waist-high tails of popular imagination make mermaid sex mere wish, even if you believe in myths.
That these mermaids are figurative (with pussy-piercings to signify pirate’s gold, as if there were any doubt that booty would be had) makes their action all the more magical. In shot after skillfully circling shot, no breaths seem needed, no water gulped, by these no-longer-humans. Furthermore, our heroines remind mortal watchers that gravity is most of what ails us. Without it, breasts never sag. Flesh refuses to fold. Hair becomes perfect, possibly even (recall “Drunken Mimi”) alive. No position is untenable, not even upside-down hands-free doggystyle. Within the first five, highly fluid minutes, it’s no longer clear why any porn has ever been filmed on land.
Although, where is the huge, sleeping sea-snake of Tennyson’s “The Mermaid?”
Eventually there isn’t one, but two. They appear after a kissing interlude that nearly threatens to be anti-climactic. For a moment, we’re not sure if said snakes belong to doomed sailors or happy mermen, and their faceless ambiguity would create great tension were they not—in a significant slip of pacing—immediately met-cute with hand jobs. Then, however, the film becomes a symmetrical and beautifully choreographed chamber piece in which, from every inventive angle, straight fucking only makes our mermaids look more in love.
We never see the heads—no, the other heads—of their men. More tellingly, neither do the mermaids. This faceless male intruder is a horror-movie cliche, but here it’s rendered in watercolours, a teen-safe dream.
In fact Magical Mermaids is as pastel a sapphic fantasy as Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977), a film echoed a decade later by the Canadian cult hit I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. Picking up still-forbidden themes, Lisa Cholodenko made 1998′s High Art, starring Ally Sheedy as a Nan Goldin-ish photographer who snaps her lover underwater and, with those images and a leaking bathtub, seduces the straight girl next door.
Still, water doesn’t always get us wettest, and porn without friction looks pale. Or is that, perhaps, what makes Magical Mermaids so watchable? After all, there are no bad spray-tans under the sea.